Friday, June 1, 2012

Is Class Size a Big Deal? Depends on who you ask...

As part of a broader plan to discuss his education policy with the nation (and to shore up the African-American vote, no doubt), Mitt Romney toured a West Philadelphia charter school and spoke at a round table with teachers and educational leaders last week. Our Republican presidential nominee took the opportunity to tout his educational reform mantra of parental choice, introducing plans for voucher program that would use federal money to allow students to attend various well-performing public, charter, and private schools.

Expounding upon his platform, Romney revealed that he does not consider class size to be a determining factor in student performance. Rather, in line with his anti-teacher-union strategy, Romney argued that the push to decrease class size is merely a wasteful union ploy to hire more teachers.

While urban teachers everywhere, whose intuition screams that this is false, pick their jaws off the floor, I will concede two things that lend credence to the Republican nominee: First, Romney's argument is logical, though fundamentally incorrect. Secondly, Romney does cite specific scientific studies that support his conclusion that class size has minimal effect on student achievement.

On a personal level, even this is is hard to admit. In my own experience as a teacher, I found classroom size to be critical to classroom success. This principle was eloquently articulated by Erin Thesing, who teaches at another West Philadelphia charter school, on the Obama-Biden blog this week. Thesing reasoned that “at the end of the day, smaller class sizes mean that there is more time for small groups or individualized instruction, and that is game changing for learning.”

However, putting this “anecdotal” evidence aside, numerous studies, including that which Romney cited, conclude the exact opposite: that class size does not play an important part in student achievement. Plenty of classrooms across the globe have classroom sizes that rival those of the U.S., yet show academic progress at a much higher rate.

What is not recognized in these studies, however, is that the influence of class-size as a variable impacting student performance, is context-dependent. Whether or not class size plays a critical role is dependent upon the particular classroom, in a particular community, etc., etc.

In an affluent classroom, class size may not be as crucial because students are already receiving the vital outside-the-classroom support to succeed in school. These students receive help on their homework from tutors and parents. They have access to proper libraries and other resources. And, most importantly, they develop in an environment which is conducive to learning-- in other words, one absent poverty and chaos, and in which a high degree of value is placed on academic success while simultaneously providing the structure and tools necessary to develop well-formed study habits.

For students who do not grow up in this environment, and do not have the outside educational resources of their more affluent peers, the classroom is often the sole locus of learning and educational opportunity. Time spent with their teacher may be the only focused, individualized attention that students receive regarding their school work.

Therefore, in these cases, class size is critical; With too large of a class size, a particular student will never be able to fully communicate with their teacher because he/she is too busy trying to reach 35 of their peers. If that student becomes confused during a lesson without the opportunity to clarify with their teacher, they run the risk of falling dangerously behind as each subsequent lesson spirals on the information they should have learned in previous week. It is not hard to make the jump between a first-grader lost and neglected in a sea of students, to a teenager later dropping out of high school because they have fallen so far behind over the years. While my reader may find this a drastic conclusion, I have unfortunately listened to enough of my high school students' stories to know this to be a frequent occurrence.

To argue that class size is a negligible factor in student success ignores the contextual conditions facing many students in urban America. While in a perfect world, class size may not carry such a weighty influence, we must face the imperfect world in which we do live. With this said, all educational reform efforts--- including, but not limited to, those relating to class size--- need to acknowledge what is happening on-the-ground within classrooms in their specific local contexts. To attempt reform otherwise, will be ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.


  1. Do you know of any studies that measure the impact of class size when controlled for family income (or even census-based income data for the school zone)? That would be interesting to see. I agree that on the surface at least, it makes sense that class size matters more to a class full of kids without a good support system than it does for affluent children.

    1. I'm not sure actually-- the most commonly cited don't. I'm sure there has to be something out there, because it seem sso obvious.